Being Right: Questions of Citizenship Status in the Census

The first census I remember was in 2010. I was going into eighth grade and could not have been more excited to help fill out this form that everyone was talk- ing about. When I opened the packet, I realized that the census was really just a long list of boring, demographic questions. I remember wondering why “they” cared about all of this information and why “they” didn’t just want to know how many people were in my house.

Article I, Section II of the U.S. Constitution mandates that Congress conduct a count of the American population every ten years, and it has done so every decennial since 1790. The original purpose of the census was to ensure that federal representatives were evenly apportioned among the states. Nowadays, the census tells the federal government how many representatives in Congress a state should receive, as well as how much grant money should be given to states and communities. Additionally, businesses and local governments can use the census data to understand and analyze important information about the people residing in their communities.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced the addition of a question to the census form several months ago. This question, regarding citizenship, would collect the data necessary to determine whether the Voting Rights Act is being properly enforced. Opponents of the question, mostly Democrats, have argued that the question will reduce the response rate to the Census or incentivize individuals to lie, both of which could lead to an inaccurate count. This is argued because many of the more than ten million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. still participate in the Census, and there are serious concerns related to declaring this undocumented status while participating in this essential demographic data collection.

Opponents of the addition filed a legal suit, alleging that the Secretary of Commerce overstepped his legal authority by adding the citizenship question to the Census. On Tuesday, the Court will hear the arguments in the United States Department of Commerce v. New York and will decide in a few months whether he did. Considering the fact that the law gives the Secretary of Commerce broad authority to administer the Census and that the addition of the citizenship question is actually a re-addition, the question will probably be included in the 2020 census. A citizenship question was included on the Census up until the 1960s; there is nothing unconstitutional about re-implementing something so relevant and necessary for accurate data collection and analysis.

Politically, it is clear that this is another example of Democrats challenging policies they don’t like in court. The question is a fair one and will garner important data that the government needs. There will always be a trade-off between important data and accuracy, and the government has shown that it is willing to make that trade in the case of the Voting Rights Act. It is even more obvious that Democrats are not primarily concerned with the accuracy of the census but are rather more worried about the political power they might lose. Lower participation not only has potential ramifications for accuracy, but also for representation in Congress. Maybe if Democrats worried less about their political clout in apportionment and worried more about the proper implementation of the Voting Rights Act, we could get back to the actual business of governing instead of wasting our time in court battles over a clear and easy process that is over 200 years old.

Contact Wil Stowers at [email protected].